The Q&A Series: Noah Beyeler

Welcome to the Q&A series, a project aimed at examining food politics and the "food debate" through the eyes and minds of people involved in making and thinking about food. My questions are in bold; the interviewee's responses are in plain text.

Today's guest is Noah Beyeler. 

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Noah Beyeler is a graduate of the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department at UC Berkeley, where he also served as the Policy Director of the Berkeley Student Food Collective. He has worked on several small pasture-based farms on the East and West coasts. 

 

 Courtesy of Noah Beyeler

Courtesy of Noah Beyeler

Q.: Let’s start with a couple of specific questions about meat and livestock (because that’s your background): You’ve worked on a livestock farm. How did you end up there? Do you have an agriculture background?

 I am actually from Oakland, California and for the first 18 years of my life was very much a ‘city kid’. After high school however I spent a couple years on a small farm in Eastern California, near the Nevada border. Ever since then I’ve been interested in agriculture, specifically the ins and outs of sustainable meat production.

Q.: Grass-fed versus corn-fed beef. I’m guessing that you think grass feeding is better. Why? Is grass-fed beef healthier? (Some scientists argue that the health benefits of grass feeding disappear once the beef is cooked.)

I do think grass-fed beef is better. While a majority of the literature on the topic shows that grass-fed beef (and pastured-meat products in general) are healthier for us I think the key benefits go far beyond nutrition. Grass-fed beef, raised with management intensive rotational grazing practices, is much healthier for the livestock, and most importantly for the land, than confinement operations.

Feeding cattle a primarily corn-based instead of grass-based diet contributes to multiple health problems for them. It also contributes to a raft of environmental problems, from the waste and effluent problems of feedlots to the decline in soil and waterway health we see from the overuse of things like herbicides, fertilizers and tillage in large monocultures.

 Courtesy of Noah Beyeler

Courtesy of Noah Beyeler

Pastured livestock on the other hand have the opportunity to increase soil health and land fertility, in an efficient way; instead of growing corn, fertilizing it, and transporting it to cattle, well managed pastured livestock operations let the cattle themselves do the work of harvesting and fertilizing, in what is likely a much more enjoyable and sustainable environment than a feedlot.

Q.: How did you become involved in the food movement? Would you describe yourself as an activist? And is there even such a thing as a “food movement,” or is all this food reform activity too amorphous and disconnected to be seen as a “movement.” (I should add here, for our readers’ sake, that there are literally hundreds of organization, consortiums, and umbrella associations devoted to food reform.)

 Courtesy of Food Not Bombs

Courtesy of Food Not Bombs

While there are hundreds of organizations and associations working on issues related to food and food reform in America, I would hesitate to collectively label them part of a ‘food movement.’ To me that seems to assume there is some cohesive semblance of ideas, as to what this food reform activity is trying to achieve.

 

And I don’t see that. While there is no doubt an undercurrent within many of these groups of creating a food production system with fewer adverse environmental and social impacts, three different ‘foodie’ organizations could support local food for three very different reasons.

 Courtesty of Berkeley Student Food Collective

Courtesty of Berkeley Student Food Collective

What I would say we currently have in this country is an ever-growing group of individuals and organizations devoted to getting people to think more critically about the origins of their food, and in doing so to perhaps change how that food is produced in the future. And I think this is a very good and very important thing; how we produce and consume food in this country is an important dialogue that we should all be partaking in.

It is because of these differing opinions however, that I think the current dialogue about food reform in America often falls short. It is much easier to derisively describe someone as a ‘foodie’ and assume you know their stance on all things food and agriculture related than to sit down and actively try and listen to and understand what are often very specific stances on very complicated issues.

Q.: As a food activist, what’s your single biggest frustration? The constant charge of elitism? The bureaucratic hurdles? What? And how do you or would you respond to the charge that the food movement and food reformers are elitist?

 

When you look at all the ways that conventional agriculture in this country is subsidized, and then all the ways in which government regulation and bureaucratic hurdles make it harder for small farmers to produce and distribute food it seems misguided to me to call food reformers elitist because they support the production of food that costs more.

Yes, we produce an awful lot of food in this country that, on the grocery shelf, is cheap. But that isn’t the true cost of the food. Were we to add into that cost the subsidies we pay for only a handful of crops in this country, the environmental costs of industrial agriculture (topsoil loss and the degradation of watersheds come to mind), and account for all the other externalities that supermarket prices don’t reflect; and then lessen the hurdles for smaller scale livestock operations interested in breaking into the market, then the price of grass-fed beef in the supermarket might be a lot closer to that of feedlot beef.

Q.: Let’s face it, not everyone wants to or can take the time to cook, or to shop at farmers’ markets. But I also think that most Americans don’t want to bother because they fundamentally don’t care that much about food. They’d rather spend their time engaged in non-food-related activities: hanging with their kids, shopping, running, chatting online, working.

 Courtesy of Berkeley Food Coop

Courtesy of Berkeley Food Coop

If that’s the case, then is the food movement a cultural movement, one aimed at persuading Americans to give a damn about food and eating? About changing their hearts and minds first, so that diets will follow? And if so, what’s the best way to do that? Schoolyard gardens? Taxes on “bad” food?

Most Americans are so far removed from the origins of their food today that very few bother to stop and think where it is from, and who is producing it or how it is being produced.  Hopefully we are seeing this slowly but steadily changing.

That change, however, is hampered by the fact that many policies in our country make it harder for people to choose food that comes from alternative production methods. Instead of taxing “bad” foods that are already cheap, why not get rid of the policies that artificially lower the prices of “bad” foods in the first place?

It seems odd for people to suggest that we raise taxes on the very foods that we subsidize the production of the most; to put hundreds of millions of dollars into government crop subsidies, turn a blind eye to the environmental degradation caused, and then tax people so they don’t buy the food we’ve put so much effort into lowering the supermarket price of. How does that make sense?

It seems like it would be easier to just level the playing field and so all farmers could compete on an even footing. Perhaps that would level prices enough that people would be able to make better choice on their own.

Q.: My greatest frustration with the “food movement” is that its advocates resolutely ignore a fundamental issue: City people don’t make their own food. They rely on farmers. And for the past two centuries, Americans have demonstrated their preference for city rather than farm. As a result, our American mode of food production (from seed to table) is designed to support an urban society; it’s designed so that a tiny minority can make food for an urban majority. Many food reformers, however, argue that we should abandon “industrial” agriculture and food production in favor of smaller, local, more artisanal-like modes of production.

As I type this, I’m thinking of that scene in “Food, Inc.” where Joel Salatin and a couple of other guys are standing in a roofed, unwalled shed slaughtering chickens as Joel talks to the camera.

 Courtesy of Avian Aqua Miser

Courtesy of Avian Aqua Miser

Ain’t no way that mode of production is gonna make enough chickens to meet demand. Yes, I know many young people in particular are interested in taking up farming these days, and that backyard gardening is undergoing a renaissance, but that’s not enough to feed an urban nation.

In short, the food movement is, in my opinion, impractical. For example, bare minimum, in order to return livestock to pasture, we’d have to raze thousands of urban structures --- malls, shops, housing developments --- and return that land to farming. And then we’d have to persuade people to leave the city and work on farms. (N.B.: I’m NOT volunteering. I grew up pulling weeds.) Your thoughts?

Well that’s quite the question, and it looks in a few different directions. But one of the things that bothers me about many people who criticize the attempts of people to reform farming in the U.S. is the claim that people are interested in going ‘back’ to some sort of nostalgic farming past of the 1800’s. 

 Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Agriculture

Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Agriculture

In fact, all of the small-scale sustainable livestock farmers I know are more than happy to tell you that is the last thing they want. They are glad for the scientific and technological advances of the past 100 years; in fact, it is these advances that enable farmers today (both large and small-scale, ‘industrial’ and ‘sustainable’) to farm in a way never thought of by past generations.

Rotation-based pastured farms absolutely rely on a multitude of technologies that, were they available in the early 1900’s would have blown the minds of farmers then. Improvements in electric fence technology, for example, have revolutionized our ability to successfully manage very intricate movements of multiple species on pastured farms, something that 80 years ago was nearly impossible. If people took the time to learn about modern pasture-based farm systems people would begin to see how dissimilar they are from farms of 100 years ago.

Secondly, I think many people are misinformed when they argue that smaller or more diverse farms are less efficient or lower yielding. It’s been shown time and again that intensively managed polycultures have higher yields per acre than the most mechanized, ‘science and technology’-based, large-scale monocultures we have (I put that in quotes because it is important to remember that well-managed polycultures require in most cases a much more advanced and deeper understanding of plant and insect, soil and microbe interactions than our present day monocultures, as well as a greater understanding of the specific climate and environmental characteristics of an area). 

 Courtesy of Inhabitat.com

Courtesy of Inhabitat.com

It’s these sort of misunderstandings that lead us to assume things like that livestock were moved to CAFO’s because of a land shortage, or assume that in order to move livestock back onto pasture, we’d have to bulldoze buildings. In reality, a majority of land in the U.S. is devoted to agriculture. America is an ‘urban’ nation not because most of the country is covered in city, but because a majority of people live in cities. In fact, of the 1.9 billion acres of land in the U.S. (we’re excluding Alaska here), only about 65 million acres are urban areas. This land, under 4% of the total land in the U.S. is where three-quarters of our population lives. The other quarter live in another 70 million acres of ‘rural residential’ land. 

While this 140 million combined acres sounds like a lot, when compared to the 800 million acres of range and pasture land, and 350 million acres of cropland, it seems misguided to say that a relatively small increase in urban areas (from 15 million acres in the 1940’s to 65 million today) was enough to force farmers into shifting production towards CAFOs. 

CA Cattle 2.jpg

And what’s more, we don’t nearly use this 800 million acres of rangeland to its full potential. Most of it is poorly managed and producing well under it’s potential. Were we to convert some of those hundreds of millions of acres of cropland to grazing land, and properly manage the rest of the pasture and rangeland in the country for maximal forage growth, the ‘necessity’ of feedlots and massive corn monocultures would be much less certain.

Instead of looking to urban expansion to explain this shift in farming practices, it would make more sense to look towards shifts in government policy (the implementation of subsidies for grain crops), or ‘scientific’ advancement (the creation of artificial fertilizers on a large scale) to explain many of these changes.

While I agree that a lot of the aims of the food movement might be impractical under our current system that doesn’t mean they are impossible, or unnecessary. To deride, for example, the efforts of ‘backyard gardening’ is to underestimate the potential they actually have. It is to forget that historically, ‘victory gardens’ planted in cities and suburbs in the U.S. during the World Wars to help counter food shortages produced (by some accounts) over a third of all produce consumed in the country at that time.

Q.: It seems to me that a great deal of the food debate boils down to who believes what about science. I’m thinking here of the GMO debate (although that’s certainly not the only point of contention about science and food): it’s unbelievably difficult to figure out what the facts are about GMOs. And many people in the food movement seem hellbent on continuing to disseminate falsehoods about GMOs (the butterfly thing and the “Indian farmers are committing suicide” claim have both been soundly debunked --- and yet, food activists keep running those two anecdotes up the flagpole).

Faced with a morass of competing claims, what’s an ordinary citizen supposed to do, know, or believe? And if science can’t be regarded as an authoritative voice for facts and certainty, how should we Americans frame public policy when it comes to food?

 

 Courtesy of RealScience.us

Courtesy of RealScience.us

I think leaving these questions up to ‘science’ isn’t the answer. Science can tell us certain things, but within a relatively limited realm. A lot of the questions that the food movement seems to be asking have to deal more with deciding questions of purpose. What is the purpose of our agricultural system? Should it be to produce the absolute ‘cheapest’ calories possible, regardless of the impacts to the environment, the working conditions of those producing the food, or the health impacts to those eating it? Or should there be some other goal? Science cannot answer these types of questions for us.

Further, we can use science to create new types of technologies, but we cannot look to science to decide for us whether we need these technologies, whether they are useful and better our quality of life, or whether they are simply technologies that solve self-created problems.  

I’m not ‘anti-science’ in the least, but I think we could learn something by looking at how nature ‘farms,’ and use that knowledge to inform our own scientific undertakings.

Does nature farm in annual monocultures? Not really. So then why pour all our scientific endeavors into creating a way to farm annual monocultures in the Great Plains when what used to exist there was a very productive perennial polyculture producing tens of millions of bison a year without the use of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fossil fuel, or machinery? Sure we can use science to create new strands of GMO corn, but we cannot use science to decide whether that is the best use of energy.

Q.: A related question: Many food reformers lay the blame for the “food crisis” at the feet of “capitalism.” In their view, “capital” and “capitalism” possess autonomy, have power and force; they “cause” things to happen. And capitalism, in the form of Big Food, “controls” our kitchens. Where do you stand on that? And if not capitalism, what?

I would like to say that as individuals we are the ones who control our own kitchens, but I think it’s naïve not to recognize there are myriad other forces at play.

One of these is that ‘Big Food’ in America exists in spite of, not because of, capitalism. Given the massive agricultural subsidies a small number of crops and farmers in this country receive, and the government’s unfair regulation of food production in favor of large producers, the idea that livestock production in this country (or agriculture in general) is much of an open market seems far-fetched to me.

That said, government regulation, often under the guise of public health, does control our kitchens to the extent it limits the possibilities and ease by which people can obtain certain foods.

RawMilkNationMapSmall2.jpg

I’m thinking here of the difficulties raw-milk producers in this country have faced, or of the destruction of most small-scale slaughterhouses due in part to increased government regulation, and the criminalization of on-site slaughter at farms.

In this vein, harking back to an earlier question, the reason this type of small-scale livestock farming “ain’t gonna make enough chickens to meet demand” is partly because, at least where I’m from in California, it’s illegal to process chickens on-farm and then sell them to restaurants or stores. How is a smaller farmer supposed to compete when right off the bat they aren’t even allowed to enter the market? 

Q.: Many entrepreneurs have jumped into the food reform game, presumably because there’s an opportunity to make money. I’m thinking here of companies like Food+Tech Connect, which put together the Hack Meat project earlier this summer, and there are dozens of other examples like it. That kind of thing seems like a far cry from where the food movement started. How do you feel about those kinds of big money, (relatively) slick, profit-driven reform efforts?

Perhaps they are a far cry from where the food movement started, but they are one of the many things that small farmers need. One of the hard parts about smaller scale farming is that the farmer must be everything – they have to fulfill the role of farmer, mechanic, accountant, marketer, advertiser, salesperson, and delivery-driver.

 

 Cartoon courtesy of Joe Mohr

Cartoon courtesy of Joe Mohr

But if some savvy entrepreneur can find a way to fulfill some of those roles for a multitude of farmers in an area (say, by creating an online farmers market with a profitable aggregation, distribution, and delivery system), then what’s wrong with it being profit-driven? I think there are plenty of technological platforms that entrepreneurial farmers and distributors could take advantage of to help with some of the problems smaller operations face in terms of lacking those economies of scale that larger businesses benefit from.

Q.: Look ten years down the road: Antibiotics: legal or not? CAFOs: legal or outlawed? GMOs: a normal part of daily life or part of an illegal underground?

       Subtherapeutic antibiotic use will be illegal. CAFO’s will still be around, although will be more regulated on the environmental front. GMO’s won’t be going away anytime soon.